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May 13, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 13, 2006 |

Oh, the heavy metal titans of yore. How proud they seemed strutting to and fro onstage, screaming and growling the virtues of death, doom, and their buddy Satan. Or at least, they made music so loud and sinister that it’s what we assumed they were talking about. In many ways, the 1980s were the halcyon days of Metal; a time that saw the genre reach its height in terms of success and popularity. You could scarcely turn on the TV without seeing some buffoon swaggering about in black leather, flaxen curls trailing from his head, who sang so intensely and thrashed his guitar at blinding speeds, you couldn’t help but think he meant it.

Whatever happened to those guys? When grunge came along it seemed to siphon off most of that burgeoning Gen-X angst and aggression and take it in another direction. By then, Metal had come to be associated with its harrowing mainstream incarnation — Hair Metal. Those who remained true to the music’s dark origins were driven further underground and became more and more excessive in their devotion to the dark, scary, and disgusting.

And yet, an alarming number of the bands exemplary of the heavy 80s scene didn’t simply die and disappear. They soldiered on, and continue to do so even with only a shadow of their former relevance. And yet, again, there are always exceptions. One band in particular, which attained popularity without really compromising its harsh sound or image throughout the ’80s, managed not only to survive the death knells of the metal-head, but became even more Brobdingnagian in success and wealth: Metallica.

Metallica seemed to miss the fact that their sound had become totally antiquated. So, it seems, did their fans. They polished up their image somewhat amidst cries of selling out during the mid-90s, then released a slew of alternative-tinged albums and an LP recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra(!). Despite their success, it was becoming pretty clear the band was having trouble confronting the line where its hardcore lineage and endemic association with the ’80s stopped and their now immense popularity began.

Some Kind of Monster is the band’s officially-sanctioned documentary concerning their troubled period in 2001 - when the band almost totally disintegrated, and their subsequent triumph and recording of 2003’s St. Anger. Metallica had spent 2000 embroiled in controversy, with drummer Lars Ulrich spearheading the music industry’s assault on Napster and file-sharing, a venture that earned the band bitter enmity from many fans. To make things worse, 14-year bassist Jason Newsted acrimoniously split after callous treatment from lead singer James Hetfield.

Amidst these troubled goings-on, Metallica settles in for a lengthy recording session of their next album release. In order to help pacify the band’s internal difficulties, therapist Phil Towle is brought in to help the band members confront their strained relationships — obviously taxed by their newfound icon status. Filming begins tentatively with their therapeutic sessions between bouts of attempted recording. In spite of Towle’s addition, things seem to be going very badly. The creative process is hampered by Ulrich and Hetfield’s almost constant bickering, and Hetfield seems persistently agitated, no doubt due to long-term emotional issues and substance abuse. The quarrelling and tension grow worse until Hetfield storms out of the studio and later, we learn, into prolonged rehab, leaving the remaining band members to wonder whether their long-coming dissolution is finally at hand.

Regardless of one’s feelings toward Metallica, there’s little denying that Some Kind of Monster is a fantastic documentary. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky know exactly how to capture and render the images they spent years collecting, and it’s all done with remarkable simplicity. The camera simply does not flinch. We watch the tantrums, the constant bitching of Ulrich and Hetfield, the petty selfishness, decadence, and sadness; all of it. Everything that so many people have come to love or disdain about Metallica is presented with such unflinching veracity, the viewer can’t help but feel wholly immersed in what is happening. The most poignant moment in the film is probably when Ulrich, as part of the therapeutic process, confronts Dave Mustaine, a former band member and friend who was cast out of Metallica unfairly. The confrontation that occurs between the two is an emotional discharge almost 20 years in coming, and forces Ulrich to deal with the troubling underbelly of the band’s success.

Halfway through Some Kind of Monster the viewer is almost convinced there will be no reconciliation, and that Metallica is kaput, even when we know better. And the kicker is, it also cheats the viewer into rooting for these megalomaniacs! We want to see them pull it together. Needless to say, the impossible happens; Hetfield returns a new man, recording renews, a new bassist is brought in, and Metallica’s rock legend status is confirmed by a triumphant new album and tour.

By facing the issues with an honest eye, Berlinger and Sinofsky have created an exceptional and sympathetic film, one of the best rockumentaries of recent memory. Metallica, pompous blowhards they may be, are given fair treatment as regular guys with regular hang-ups who are struggling with an image that legions of fans and a domineering media have thrust upon them. When they succeed, we can’t help but feel something good has happened.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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